In the normal environment, bees will collect nectar from nearby flowering plants and transport it back to their hive and place it in combs where it will continue to breakdown and digest with the help of enzymes from the bees stomach. Worker bees fan the nectar to reduce the moisture content until honey is produced. They will then cap the cell full of honey to preserve and store it until it is needed. There will be times when you will notice uncapped cells with some nectar, honey or sugar water in it. These uncapped cells contain unprocessed nectar or honey that still contains moisture in it and they are the ones that ferment over time.
Will bees eat fermented honey and fermented sugar water? Yes, they will. Fermented honey is part of the bee’s diet since this is a normal occurrence inside a hive. However, fermented honey and sugar water should only be a small part of their diet.
The reason why you find uncapped honey, nectar or sugar water in your hive is that bees will not cap them unless all the moisture has evaporated. If winter came and there are still honey, nectar or sugar water left with water content, they will be left uncapped and will then begin to ferment.
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation is the process where carbohydrates are changed into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Fermented honey goes through the same process as when brewers are fermenting their beverages. The only difference is that brewers mix yeast into their concoction while the yeast that ferments the honey is a naturally occurring yeast called wild yeast.
Characteristics of Fermented Honey and Fermented Sugar Water
These uncapped honey, sugar water, and nectar will ferment inside the hive if not removed immediately. These uncapped cells can be removed by shaking the frame of the hive. Since these uncapped ones have higher moisture content in them, they will easily fly out of the comb. Others use an extractor to take out the fermenting liquid or syrup out of the cells without damaging the comb.
As fermenting is a chemical process that breakdown the composition of the substance, you can observe the changes and spot fermentation easily. The reason why you want these fermented items out is that you’d want those combs to be empty for more honey to be produced.
Honey that has not started fermenting will look like normal honey. Clear and with that signature golden tint to it. Once fermentation starts, yeast will start to do its job and in the process release carbon dioxide gas. You will begin to see the uncapped honey form bubbles and then, later on, spill over.
Since carbon dioxide is released when the bubbles reach the surface, you will notice an odor produced during this time. This is a good sign that fermentation is happening in your combs. You can either leave the fermenting honey in the cells or shake the hive frame to remove it. If you leave the fermenting honey, this will continue to produce gas and you will notice a cloudy white appearance to the honey. This will then foam up and then drip down to the bottom of the hive box.
Sugar Water Fermentation
There will be times when you will need to supplement your bees with some source of food and most beekeepers resort to sugar water. However, this is still susceptible to the fermentation process. Fermented water may or may not be appealing to bees but it is recommended that once you determine that your sugar water is fermenting to toss it, clean the feeder and put in a fresh batch of sugar water.
Fermented sugar water will develop that funky smell that yeast produces while it’s fermenting the sugar water. This will be the first sign of fermentation. You can also check the syrup if it has developed some mold on the surface which will eventually turn black. Also, a cloudy looking syrup can also mean that it is fermenting.
What to do with fermented honey
If you have harvested honey that has a high moisture content then it probably will ferment over time. An optimum 17.5% moisture content should be targeted by beekeepers as this amount will produce honey that will not ferment but will also have the perfect consistency. Any honey with moisture content above 17.5% will ferment over the course of time.
You can actually be creative with fermented honey as this has a more powerful flavor to it than fresh ones. Think of using it on recipes rather than throwing it away. Replace those recipes that require wine and honey mixed together with fermented honey.
In ancient times, an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey is made and drank by many.
This oldest alcoholic beverage is called mead and you can use your fermented honey to make it.
Choose between making dry mead (contains nine to twelve pounds of honey) or sweet mean (contains 12 pounds of honey). The brewing process takes a short time but it takes about four weeks maybe, even more, to ferment the honey into mead.
There are some who prefer raw honey rather than fermented honey and these beekeepers follow the ratio of fermented honey should only be 10% of the total honey collection. In order to achieve this, beekeepers either extract or remove the fermenting honey inside the combs. They also wait for the combs to be all capped before harvesting.
For some reason, there are times when the many combs are left uncapped which spurred beekeepers to find ways on how to remove moisture without damaging the combs. They use fans and dehumidifier to remove excess moisture in the honey inside the combs and prevent it from fermenting when extracted.
Is it safe to eat?
Humans can consume fermented honey without any problem given that it is clean and not exposed to unhealthy contaminants. In fact, there are beekeepers who suggest using fermented honey in cooking. However, it is a different story for the bees.
There are also others who ferment honey into a lactic acid bacteria-containing drink or seasoning.
Does fermented honey hurt bees?
Just like any other fermenting process. Honey that is fermenting will contain some amount of alcohol which is poisonous to bees just like in any other animal. Beekeepers also believed that feeding fermented sugar water or honey to bees can cause dysentery.
Dysentery is a disease where the intestines, mostly the colon to become inflamed. This will result in severe diarrhea and abdominal pains. It can be deadly to a hive if not addressed immediately.
How to prevent fermentation of honey and sugar water?
As a beekeeper, you will have those times when your honey contains too much moisture in it. This watered down honey is the perfect candidate for fermentation. But if you do not want your stored honey to ferment, you can pasteurize it to remove some of the moisture in it. Place it in a container that is properly sealed so that it does not attract more moisture.
Be careful when heating the honey as heating can degrade the quality of the honey. The rule is that you should not heat honey past 95℉ as this is the time when the beneficial enzymes present in honey are destroyed.
For sugar water, beekeepers have used many methods to prevent their sugar water from fermenting. There are those who use bleach, chlorine, and sometimes apple cider vinegar to change the PH level of the sugar water.
To quickly recap the whole article, bees do eat fermented honey and sugar water but this is not their main source of food. This should just be a small part of their diet. Fermenting causes alcohol to be produced and can be deadly to bees when too much is ingested. It is believed to cause dysentery to bees and can weaken a hive.
The signs to look for when figuring out if your honey or sugar water is fermenting are the smell, cloudy color, bubbles in honey, mold in the sugar water surface, and foamy substance underneath the hive box. You can let the honey ferment and use it in cooking, making mead or making a lactic acid bacteria-containing drink but the sugar water should be chucked out, sanitize the container and replaced with a fresh batch.
How long does it take for sugar water ferment?
Sugar water can ferment anywhere between two to ten days depending on the temperature and environment of the area where it is located. The best way to spot fermented sugar water is to smell the water and if a yeasty odor is present then most probably the water is fermenting.
Is fermented honey good for the health?
There is actually no definitive proof that fermented honey is good for the health. But there are many who claims that it aids in digestion. There are also those who ferment honey with garlic in it so that turns into this superfood that is supposed to be good for your health and immune system.
How do you measure the moisture level in honey?
Beekeepers use a special instrument called refractometer to check the moisture level in honey. Honey that is less than 20% moisture is good honey to process. Many beekeepers are using the fan room plus dehumidifier trick to further remove the moisture content of the honey inside the combs that are left uncapped by the bees.